Our book, It’s Always Freezer Season, is all about using the freezer more strategically, with recipes for your “freezer pantry” that will help you get to dinner faster—things like buttermilk biscuit rounds and chicken stock—as well as freezer-friendly mains, like enchiladas and macaroni and cheese, that can be made completely from start to finish, then frozen for a busy day.
But we learned that it’s just as important to understand how to freeze as it is to understand how to unfreeze—and by that, we mean how to thaw and reheat food that’s been frozen. Whenever you’re getting ready to cook with food that’s frozen, whether that’s a piece of protein or a complete casserole, there’s a prologue that needs to take place before you can get started: How will I thaw that food?
There are a number of ways to do it and a number of ways not to do it, and it all depends on the ingredient or dish in question and the end result. Below, we’ll dive into how to thaw and reheat all sorts of foods, as well as our favorite (and least favorite) methods for each:
Thawing is different from reheating. When we talk about thawing, we mean the process of raising the temperature of a frozen ingredient to the point at which it is no longer frozen but ideally is not yet in the danger zone of 40° to 145°F (that’s the temperature range in which bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness are most likely to produce.) We want to thaw, not reheat, ingredients we plan to continue to cook with, rather than immediately reheat and eat.
Pull and Thaw (Refrigerator Thawing)
The most controlled and accurate way to thaw something is to move the dish or ingredient from your freezer to your refrigerator, and wait. We call this “the pull and thaw” method. This ensures that the temperature of the food never exceeds that of the refrigerator, which keeps the item below the threshold of the danger zone at all times. But it is also the longest thawing process. In our experience, it takes a minimum of 24 hours for a previously frozen recipe or dish to thaw in the refrigerator. You’ll often see instructions in recipes elsewhere stating that you can thaw something “overnight,” but in our house, 8 to 12 hours has rarely been enough time to thaw frozen food completely.
It’s easy to get around the time commitment, as long as you’re planning ahead. Try to get in the habit of pulling what you need and moving it to the refrigerator about two days before you’re ready to cook. Your foresight will result in the best quality and safety of your dish.
We don’t recommend leaving frozen food out at room temperature to thaw. Most frozen food will require several hours to thaw at room temperature, which means prolonged exposure in the danger zone as the temperature of the item rises. The only exceptions to this would be less perishable items that you might keep on a counter anyway, such as breads, bread crumbs, muffins, cookies, or pie dough. But even then, if it’s going to take more than 2 hours for the item to thaw, it’s best to move it to the refrigerator.
Cold Water Thawing
Let’s face it: Sometimes, we forget to pull our frozen ingredients with enough notice to thaw them in the refrigerator. Sometimes we need to thaw something quickly! In these instances, the next best approach is the cold running water bath. To do this, put your packaged ingredient into a large bowl or other vessel, or even a plugged sink, and run a slow steady trickle of cold water over it until it thaws. While it’s way faster than thawing in the refrigerator, this process isn’t exactly quick—expect 20 to 30 minutes for most items. This method is preferred by the health department (at least here in North Carolina, where we live), but it’s not ideal from a water conservation perspective. You can also try the water bath method: Submerge the packaged item in cold water, and change out the water every 30 minutes until the food is thawed.